A Call for a Free Council

By Andre A. Gazal
As the controversy surrounding Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses intensified, the University of Wittenberg professor’s prince, Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, arranged for him to be interviewed by Cardinal Cajetan at Augsburg during the meeting of the imperial diet there in October 1518. During the meeting the professor and the cardinal discussed indulgences, the treasury of merit, papal authority, the relationship between Scripture and ministry as well as the necessity of faith for the saving reception of the sacraments.
While Cajetan sympathized with Luther’s criticism of indulgences, he forthrightly rejected Luther’s view of the papacy. With no agreement resulting from the meeting, on November 28, 1518, Luther appealed to the pope for a trial before a general council of the church. Luther grounded his appeal on the decree issued by the Council of Constance, and confirmed by the Council of Basel, that a general council “lawfully assembled in the Holy Spirit,” represented the Catholic Church, and therefore has “its authority immediately from Christ,” meaning “that all men, of every rank and condition, including the Pope himself, is bound to obey it in matters concerning the Faith.”[1]
This would have not been a surprising move on part of the beleaguered professor, for the Fifth Lateran Council had concluded in the previous year—the same year in which Luther nailed the Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche at Wittenberg. Convened by Pope Julius II in 1512, and adjourned by Leo X, this ill-fated council, intended to reform many of the abuses in the late medieval church, ultimately failed in this mission, but instead re-asserted earlier papal condemnation of conciliarism (the principle of the supremacy of a general council within the universal church expressed by the earlier councils above) and of the growing autonomy of national churches, particularly in France.[2]
Although the council passed numerous resolutions calling for reform of abuses of ecclesiastical taxes and fees, it failed to stop simony (the buying and selling of church offices) and pluralities (the holding of several ecclesiastical by one person). For instance, when the papal bull on reform of the church, read during the ninth session of the council, was sent to Albert of Mainz, it was accompanied by an offer condemned in this very bull: the pope was willing to allow Albert to retain his numerous ecclesiastical offices in exchange for ten thousand ducats.[3] As Luther continued to wage his controversy with the papacy and its agents, he increasingly qualified his view concerning the constructive role of councils in affecting substantial reform as well as defining and preserving orthodox doctrine. While the Wittenberg professor considerably devalued the authority of councils in favor of his understanding of sola scriptura, he still assigned, albeit perhaps reluctantly, a tentative function to councils in reforming the church. Thus, as this article will argue, Luther, for all his criticism of councils, still used elements of conciliarist thought in his early advocacy of reform. This will mainly require examination of the reformer’s discussion concerning councils in his Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation as to the Amelioration of the State of Christendom (1520). 

The Congregatio Fidelium and the Priesthood of All Believers

The “third wall” of the “Romanists” which Luther sought to demolish in this major reform treatise was the pope’s claim to be the only one with the authority to summon a council. A cursory examination of this section in relation to the entire work suggests that the summoning of a council as well as the nature and extent of conciliar authority constitute the central issue of this treatise. This is evidenced, first of all, by the fact that Luther speaks of the necessary dismantling of the two previous “walls,” the superiority of the clergy to secular rulers, and the Roman Church’s prerogative to be the only interpreter of Scripture as consequently and leading to the third: “The third wall falls without more ado when the first two are demolished.”[4]
As will become apparent below, Luther thought these two claims to be the main impediments to a legitimate council as they necessarily supported sole papal control of such a council. Secondly, this subsection on convening a council serves as the basis for the two major sections concerning the subjects to be discussed by councils, and the proposals for reforming the state of Christendom.[5]
Luther begins his removal of this “third wall” with a call to the church at large to correct the pope because he was acting contrary to Scripture. The reformer issues this admonition on the basis of Matthew 18:15-17 in which Jesus gives instructions for correcting an erring brother.[6] In this discourse, Jesus says that if the offender remains unrepentant after being warned by two or three witnesses, then his followers were to refer the matter to the church, and if the wrongdoer remained obdurate after the church’s rebuke, he was to be treated as a “Gentile,” or as one no longer fellowship with the church. Luther regards this passage as enjoining upon every Christian to exercise concern for the spiritual well-being of their fellow believers. The reformer then applies this responsibility of one Christian towards another to the universal church regarding one of its most prominent, but erring members, the pope. Underlining this particular appropriation of Matthew 18:15-17 is Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which he clearly articulated earlier in the treatise, in a section where he counters the alleged superiority of the clergy to secular rulers:

Hence we deduce that there is, at bottom, really no other difference between laymen, priests, princes, bishops, or in Romanist terminology, between religious and secular, than that of the office or occupation, and not that of Christian status. All have spiritual status, and all are truly priests, bishops, and popes.[7]

Moreover, when addressing the pope’s claim to be the ultimate interpreter of Scripture, Luther avers: “[A]ll of us are priests because we have the one faith, the one gospel, one and the same sacrament; why then should we not be entitled to taste or test, and to judge what is right or wrong in the faith?”[8] The common priesthood of all Christians, grounded in the same faith, and conferred by the same sacrament, baptism, empowers them to decide matters concerning the church’s doctrine and practice.
Indeed, the priesthood of all believers, which is the central theme running through the treatise, serves to undergird Luther’s repudiation of the pope’s claim to sole authority for summoning a council while at the same time affirming the council’s own power to correct the pope:

Romanists have no Scriptural basis for their contention that the pope alone has the right to summon or sanction a council. This is their own ruling, and only valid as long as it is not harmful to Christian well-being or contrary to God’s laws. If, however, the pope is in the wrong, this ruling becomes invalid, because it is harmful to Christian well-being not to punish him through a council.[9]

Luther here states a condition cited by late medieval conciliar theorists that qualify the canon law stipulation authorizing the pope alone to summon a general council.[10] Luther’s application of the priesthood of all believers to nullify papal authority to call a council as well as the doctrine itself arguably does not originate with the reformer himself, but rather derives from antecedent canonist and conciliar thought. When commenting on Distinction 19 of Gratian’s Decretum, Decretists, particularly Huguccio (d. 1210), distinguished among different meanings of “church,” the two principal ones of which were the church as the pope with the cardinals, and the church as the congregatio fidelium (“congregation of the faithful”) throughout the world.[11]
Since the history of the church has shown that individual popes have and will err, Huguccio and other Decretists observe that Christ’s promise that the church would be free from error applies to the latter, and therefore ultimate authority resides throughout the congregatio fidelium.[12] Yet, neither Huguccio nor the other Decretists ever explicitly argued that the congregatio fidelium on account of its authority due to its preservation from error, could actively correct the pope.[13] The rendering of the authority possessed inherently by the congregatio fidelium into a positive power actually superior to that of the papacy was the work of fourteenth and fifteenth-century conciliarists like William of Ockham (1287-1347), Franciscus Zabarella (1360-1417), and Jean Gerson (1363-1429).
What Luther effectively does, then, is to take the church as the congregatio fidelium as the only valid definition of the church; in this definition, the pope is just one individual member. Moreover, the reformer expands on this definition in such a way so as to sacralize every member of the church by virtue of the indefectibility of the congregatio fidelium. This sacralization of all members of the congregatio fidelium for Luther serves as basis for its active collective power to decide matters of the faith and correct offenders within its fold.

A Papal-Convoked Council as an Unlawful Council 

Luther further nullifies papal control of a council by means of his appeal to Acts 15 which records the account of the Jerusalem Council. In referencing this passage, Luther points out that all of the apostles and elders participated equally in this “Apostolic Council.”[14] Had Peter, Luther asserts, sole authority to summon this first church council, “it would not have been a ‘Christian council,’ but an heretical conciliabulum.”[15] Luther’s employment of this term, conciliabulum, to characterize papally summoned councils is significant in that it denotes an unlawful council.
The implication here is radical. In assigning this term to papally sanctioned councils, Luther sets them against orthodox ones representing the whole church. Whereas earlier canonists and Decretists conceived of a legitimate council as representing all churches in union with the Roman Church, and hence the pope,[16] fourteenth and fifteenth-century conciliarists posit the possibility of a council representing the whole church acting against the Church of Rome, and specifically, the pope.[17] Luther takes this conciliarist concept of a council acting against a pope even further so as to place past general councils summoned by the pope in direct opposition to the first four ecumenical councils (Nicaea I (325), Constantinople 1 (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451).
One of the stark contrasts to which Luther calls attention is the fact these ecumenical councils were summoned by Christian Roman emperors. “ [T]he bishop of Rome neither called nor sanctioned the Council of Nicaea, the most celebrated of all, but the emperor Constantine. After him, many other emperors did the same, and these councils were the most Christian of all.”[18] From there the reformer immediately brands councils summoned by the pope alone as “heretical.”[19]
Even though Luther charged the pope with being antichrist in his debate with Eck at Leipzig a year before, in this particular context Luther makes use of a scenario discussed extensively by Decretists, especially Huguccio, who explicitly posited the possibility of the pope being publicly guilty of heresy.[20] However, Luther is not content with merely acknowledging the pope’s guilt of heresy as a possibility; rather, he transfers the pope’s heresy from the realm of the hypothetical and speculative to that of the historical and institutional. At worst, papally summoned councils have profaned the church; at best, “they did nothing of special importance.”[21] Since the papal institution itself is antichrist, all that it does is necessarily heretical, and thus injurious to the state of the church.

A Free Council for the Status Ecclesiae 

Decretists and conciliarists alike regarded the status ecclesiae, the “state of the church,” as “the overriding consideration in all matters of ecclesiastical policy.”[22] Both Decretists and conciliarists regarded the limitation of papal power as indispensable to general “state of the church.”[23] They regarded the General Council as the best means of restraining papal authority for the sake of the church’s overall well-being.[24]
The logical consequence of the necessity of a General Council to curb papal power is its role in correcting the pope when his actions prove deleterious to the “state of the church.” Luther appropriates this same Decretist/Conciliarist idea of correction of the pope by a council to ensure the status ecclesiae in his call for a “free council” (i.e. one not subject to papal control): “Therefore, when need requires it, and the pope is acting harmfully to Christian well-being, let anyone who is a true member of the Christian community as a whole take steps as early as possible to bring about a genuinely free council.”[25]
Like his medieval and late medieval predecessors, Luther avers the need of a council to correct an erring pope, but with this caveat—he assigns to the responsibility of convoking such a council to any Christian, which is a direct application of the priesthood of all believers to conciliarist theory. However, for what he understands as practical reasons, Luther identifies those Christians best capable of summoning such a council for the status ecclesiae as secular authorities:

No one is able to do this as the secular authorities, especially since they are fellow Christians, fellow priests, similarly religious, and of similar authority in all respects. They should exercise their office and do their work without let or hindrance where it is necessary or advantageous to do so, for God has given them authority over every one.[26]

Civil magistrates within a Christian state, like the Holy Roman Empire, are members of the church by virtue of their faith and baptism, and therefore, like all other Christians, are priests.  Secular rulers are most suitable to summon such a council not only because of their own priesthood, but also their office lends itself to such a task because it entails protecting Christendom. Just as it is incumbent upon magistrates to protect cities within their principalities, so it is compulsory for them to exercise their temporal authority to ensure the external order of the church. Luther thus revives the ancient imperial prerogative of summoning councils by sacralizing the laity of which they are the leading part while relegating the external order of the church to the sphere of their protection. In so doing, Luther made the magistrate a lay priest to counter the pope as false priest.


Luther’s An Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation is essentially a conciliarist work. Throughout this seminal 1520 treatise, the reformer employs concepts derived from Decretist and conciliar thought in his call for a council to reform Christendom. Yet, the reformer expanded on these concepts in order to develop his own program of reform.
Foundational among these was the congregatio fidelium which served as the source of his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. It is this doctrine whereby Luther removes the barrier between clergy and laity, thereby sacralizing the laity, and thus empowering it to summon a council through their chief agent, the civil magistrate. The second concept was the hypothetical possibility of the pope’s guilt of heresy about which earlier Decretists and conciliarists speculated extensively. Luther explicitly argued this as a reality to the point of placing papally summoned councils in contradistinction to the first four ecumenical councils which together served as the standard for orthodoxy, resulting in his assessment of the former papal councils as consequently heretical. Finally, Luther appealed to the status ecclesiae as reason for correcting papal error though a council summoned by the civil magistrates, who, among the sacral laity, had the practical means to do so.
Andre Gazal (Ph.D. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) teaches on the faculties of North Greenville University and Nicolet Bible Institute. He also serves as the Assistant Project Editor for the Reformation Commentary on Scripture (IVP Academic). He is the author of Scripture and Royal Supremacy in Tudor England: The Use of Old Testament Historical Narrative.
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[1] Henry Bettenson & Chris Maunder, ed. Documents of the Christian Church, fourth edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 143.  Italics added.
[2] Nelson H. Minnich, The Fifth Lateran Council: Studies in Its Membership, Diplomacy, and Proposals for Reform (1512-1517) (Variorum, 1993); Norman Tanner, The Church in Council: Conciliar Movements, Religious Practice, and the Papacy from Nicaea to Vatican II (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011), 26.
[3] Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress), 10.
[4] John Dillenberger, ed. Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings (New York: Doubleday, 1961), 415.
[5] Dillenberger, ed. Martin Luther, 417-85.
[6] Dillenberger, ed. Martin Luther, 415.
[7] Dillenberger, ed. Martin Luther, 409.
[8] Dillenberger, ed. Martin Luther, 414.
[9] Dillenberger, ed. Martin Luther, 415.
[10] Gratian, in his Decretum, states: “It has been shown above from the writings of the saints when the general councils were celebrated and that their authority is greater than other councils. Authority for convoking councils, however, belongs to the Apostolic See” [Emphasis added]. Gratian, Decretum, D.17. p.1. See Gratian, Treatise on the Laws (Decretum DD. 1-20). Translated by Augustine Thompson (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1993), 66.  
[11] Brian Tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 42-46.
[12] Tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory, 43.
[13] Tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory, 46.
[14] Dillenberger, ed. Martin Luther, 415.
[15] Dillenberger, ed. Martin Luther, 415.
[16] Tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory, 55.
[17] Tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory, 55.
[18] Dillenberger, ed. Martin Luther, 415.
[19] Dillenberger, ed. Martin Luther, 415.
[20] Tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory, 59.
[21] Dillenberger, ed. Martin Luther, 415.
[22] Tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory, 51.
[23] Tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory, 51.
[24] Tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory, 51.
[25] Dillenberger, ed. Martin Luther, 415-16.
[26] Dillenberger, ed. Martin Luther, 416.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]


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